Touching Bottom - Peter Skene Ogden Secondary School

“Touching Bottom”
by Kari Strutt
“How many fingers?” Dad asked at bath time.
I was afraid, but I ducked my head into the half-full white tub. I opened my
eyes, then came up sputtering.
“That’s right.” Then his hand, broad as a rainbow, covered my head all the
way to my ears, and slicked back my sopping hair. He wrapped me in a clean
yellow towel, and the fear, what was left of it, evaporated.
I could open my eyes under water.
The summer I turned seven I went to Camp Kinaird with fifty other girls.
“Where young girls learn to swim,” Dad quoted from the black text between the
brochure photos of smiling kids.
“You should learn to swim,” he said, “you never know when you’ll end up in
water that’s over your head.”
The camp instructors told me I was a good swimmer. My spindly arms cut
the water like fins, and I could circle them at a furious pace. I learned to put my
face in the water, turn my head for air. I was quick, like a water beetle, and I liked
the feeling of the cool water pushing through my hair.
On the fifth day of swim lessons, the fat girl came to shore with a dark
glistening streak on her back. Somebody shrieked, “You gotta leech on you,” and
the shoreline became a seething mass of squealing, blue-lipped girls. The terror
rang in my ears long after the camp counsellor salted the girl’s back and caught
the writhing leech in an old tin can. She was still whimpering when we went to
the cookhouse for lunch.
For the rest of the summer, I refused to go in the water. The other girls
backstroked and side stroked and perfected their Australian crawls. The fat girl
and I sat on the dock watching a black bloodsucker make its way across a yellow
plastic bowl lodged in the sandy bottom near shore.
That fall, my dad signed me up for Red Cross swimming lessons. In a pool.
“You can start again,” Dad said. “I’m sure there are no leeches at the
YMCA, but I’ll come and watch, just to be sure.”
When we got to the YMCA, Dad and I walked around the pool together,
looking for leeches. I thought I saw one, but it was just a Band-Aid.
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The pool water was clear blue-green, and with my goggles on, I could see
the bottom. There were wide black lines painted along the length of it. I used the
lines to make sure I was swimming straight. I finished all of the Red Cross lessons,
then I joined a swim club and learned to race. I trained every day, back and forth
in the pool, guided on either side by the lane markers – bright strings of plastic
bubbles, led from below by the thick black lines. When I turned fourteen, I
trained twice a day, every morning at five-thirty and every evening at five. Dad
drove me to practice after practice, day after day, year after year.
I was skinny and hungry all of the time. I ate a lot, but it was never enough.
Sometimes I swam the backstroke, staring at the pool ceiling and dreaming of
macaroni and cheese. After practice, I sliced wafers of cold butter; let them melt
on my tongue.
I learned to swim a long ways, but I never did get comfortable in murky
water: lakes, rivers, anywhere I couldn’t see bottom. That kind of water made my
throat open too wide to bring into my lungs, made me breathe fast, out of
That’s why, when I think of California, I get queasy. I lived there for four
years with my husband. He came to Canada on business, to the art gallery where
I worked, and swept me away to Los Angeles on a blue wave of charm.
My dad told me not to go, not to marry him. He said I would be sorry. He
said, “His mid-life crisis will pass soon enough and you’ll be stuck in California, like
a fish out of water.” He said he would not come to the wedding. He didn’t. The
day I got married, I felt lonely and afraid. I lived with my husband, my sister-inlaw and Ian, in a house in the San Fernando Valley. The air is close in that valley,
but the people are distant, separated from each other by car lengths and private
My husband’s sister was a loveless woman, no girlfriends and no
boyfriends. She once called the police when she found a rat in the kitchen. She
screamed into the phone, “He’s in the house! He’s in the house!”
“Where in the house?” they demanded.
“He’s under the stove,” she shrieked. When the 9-1-1 operators found out
she was talking about a rat and not a violent perpetrator, they hung up on her.
She stood on the front porch for four hours, sweat trickling into the small of her
back, waiting for help that never arrived. After that, she refused to cook.
Ian was my husband’s son from a previous marriage. The summer Ian was
born, I got a new CCM bicycle and built a tree fort with my friend Elaine.
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important and
Ian was a sensible boy, tall for his age. I weighed more than he did, but our
eyes were level. We listened to music. I introduced him to albums he’d never
heard before: the Roches, Penguin Café Orchestra, and Phillip Glass. We laughed
at the same movies. Better Off Dead, Buckaroo Banzai, Real Genius, The Big Snit.
Ian was a good kid, smart.
Ian’s mom told me once, “Don’t try to be his mother; he already has one.”
She was taking Ian away for the weekend and I was seeing him out the door,
making sure he had pajamas and enough underwear. I didn’t want to be his
mother, I just wanted her to know that I was good to him.
One day, Ian, my husband and I went to the beach near the Santa Monica
pier. It was a warm day and the Santa Ana winds whipped the water into frothy
Ian was frantic about swimming, desperate to be in the water. I didn’t
really want to go because of the kind of water it was. Murky. I said yes anyway
because his father wouldn’t go with him, and kids should have fun. I told him, “I’ll
swim with you, but not where it’s over our heads.”
Ian was not a good swimmer, but good enough to do a few lengths. We
stayed close to shore and let the waves knock us over. I laughed because Ian was
laughing and whooping. His happiness caught me by the arm and spun me
around, breathless and grinning. Ian could do that to me.
He bounced up and down in the waist-deep water. “Look at that,” he said,
pointing a slender arm, scraped at the elbow, toward the open water. “That’s so
awesome.” There were boys on belly boards, fifty yards out, catching the bigger
“Let’s go there,” Ian said. “It’s not that deep and the waves are better. Can
“Nope.” I shook my head and his smile faded. I grabbed his waist and
tickled him, extracting more laughter and a desperate squirm. Kissed the top of
his head, the smell of salt and sunshine.
“Please, please, can we go? I’ll stay right beside you. Please?”
I didn’t like the idea, but he was right about the waves.
I told him we had to go a little further up the beach, because I didn’t want
the belly boarders to run us over. We went south, down the shore, not more
than thirty yards or so, wading into chest-high water until, clear of the boarders,
we stopped to rest. We put our backs to the incoming waves, watched a gull rise
and drift north.
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I could see Ian’s father on the beach. He was lying in the sand, pretending
not to watch the bronzed, blonde girls playing beach volleyball. He was lying on
his stomach, hiding his pot belly from the sun and from their view.
Ian and I started swimming out to the bigger waves, and everything seemed
okay. It’s hard to tell where you are in the ocean, no lane markers, no bottom
I was swimming and wondering if, in California, it was okay for a married
man to lie on the beach watching girls while his second wife entertained his son.
That’s when I noticed Ian and I were being pulled out to sea. We’d taken
only a few strokes, but were nearly as far from shore as the boarders. A few
seconds later, we passed them.
Ian didn’t notice.
He kept swimming until I said, “Ian. Stop. Stand up.”
I dropped my feet to bottom and felt my toes dragging through the sand,
just briefly. Then the bottom dropped away and the water was over my head.
“Head back to shore, Ian,” I called. A hollowness was opening in my throat.
Ian turned around without argument.
“You’re going to have to swim hard,” I said. “We’re in some kind of
Ian swam hard. I swam behind him, pushing him forward by the soles of his
feet. I could see the boarders, forward, to our left. We swam for a long time. We
didn’t get any closer.
My husband was a dark mark on the beach. He seemed to be talking to one
of the volleyball players. I could see her pale yellow hair. She was standing above
him; hands on hips. He was sitting in the sand, legs bundled to chest. I buried my
face in the water, swam hard for the shore.
Ian’s front crawl grew lame. He was breathing loud and fast, exhaling twice
with every stroke. He couldn’t drag his arms out of the water.
“Keep swimming, Ian,” I growled.
“I can’t.”
“You have to.”
Ian kept swimming. He knew we were in trouble.
I thought about jellyfish stings and, just once, leeches, breathed slowly,
looked toward the beach. The volleyball girl was sitting by my husband; they sat
face to face, laughing.
Ian started to cry.
“I have a cramp in my calf,” he said.
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I know how bad that can be, like a rod of hot iron right through the belly of
the muscle.
“Float on your back for a while.”
Ian tried, but the waves kept washing into his mouth, making him cough,
weak and watery.
I lifted Ian’s head out of the water and held it up, side stroking in the
direction of shore. Not losing ground, not gaining ground, stroke after stroke.
Something in my shoulder snapped, and the joint began to grind. My sides
clenched in the first spasms of exhaustion. I tried to add it up. Nearly half an
hour of swimming in place, fifteen minutes of pulling Ian. That was equivalent to
three miles at least, so I still had two more miles left in me, maybe three.
I felt dizzy. The water felt so cold now.
I wanted to let Ian go. I could see his father, reaching to touch the bronze
“Can you try again, Ian? Just swim for a minute.”
“No, I’m too tired.”
“Just try, for me.”
I didn’t wait for him to answer, I just let him go. I knew instantly that it was
a mistake. He started to drift away from me, seaward. I watched the distance
between us grow until he screamed.
“Mom, help.”
“You can shave four seconds off your best one hundred-yard time if you pull
harder. Slow your cadence, and pull like this.”
“Okay, coach.”
I pulled hard, body rigid, head down, breaking the waves. A sprint,
anaerobic, no time to breathe, no need to breathe. But when I got there, Ian was
already going under, his face distorted by panic. He grabbed onto me, snarled my
limbs with his. He was trying to keep his head above water and he pushed me
under. He held me there, and for a few seconds, I waited, hoping he would settle.
When I started to run out of air, I pulled myself downward, away from him,
deeper into the water.
It surprised me when my toes hit the sand. The bottom had never been too
far away, twelve or fifteen feet at most, the water not much deeper than the
diving tanks at the YMCA. I opened my eyes and looked up. The water felt quiet.
I could see Ian, above me, silhouetted against the yellow ball of the sun. I was so
tired, and it was so soft and warm under the deep blanket of water. I thought I
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would sleep, just for a minute or two, collect my strength for the swim back to
shore. Already dreaming, my knees touched the coarse sand.
Kitchen table. Cinnamon toast.
“How come I didn’t win, Dad?”
“Did you do your best?” Melted butter and spiced sugar, turning liquid on
my tongue.
Dad’s eyes, wise, weariness in the corners. “To win, you have to give until it
hurts, then give some more.”
On the surface of the water, Ian was still. My chest roared hot. I pushed
myself upward, off the bottom, toward the pale light and the dark shadow of a
At surface, I dragged air into aching lungs.
Ian on his back. Floating.
“I thought you might be dead,” he said almost matter-of-factly. “I did like
you told me, I’m floating.” His body convulsed with uncontrollable shivers.
“I’m sorry, Ian. I won’t let you go again.”
I lay on my back, and cradled Ian’s head on my chest. I thought that if I
could swim north, get closer to the boarders, I could yell for help. I kicked
northward, parallel to the beach.
I know about currents now. Bands, sometimes as narrow as twenty or
thirty feet across, that pull toward deeper water. Swim parallel to shore and you
can be free of them in a minute. Swim toward shore and you battle the current
until you die.
I kicked and looked at the sky. I breathed slowly. I kicked and kicked until
both calves locked into tight balls. Lungs felt so hot, so full.
I thought of the distance swimmer I once saw on television. The TV crew
filmed her as she swam from Cuba to Florida, a boat beside her, keeping pace.
The boat supported a moving net, a box of iron mesh to keep away sharks and
jellyfish. It must be nice, that net. She would always know she was in the right
place, in miles of open water, even without any bottom lines.
Ian was quiet, resting. His shivering had nearly stopped. It sounded like he
was humming. I had the smell of macaroni and cheese in my nostrils, the taste of
slick, warm butter on my tongue.
I lay on my back, kicking, pulling weakly at the water with one arm. I hadn’t
looked around for a while, maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but suddenly I could
hear the boarders.
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important and
“Ian, can you swim for a second?”
“I don’t think so.”
I held Ian upright with one arm and turned onto my stomach. We nearly
ran into a blond boy, perhaps fifteen.
“Please,” I asked. “My son is exhausted. Can I use your board to tow him to
The boy said nothing, but piloted his board to me. He helped me heave Ian
onto the board and together we towed it to shore.
As we made our way in, I could see my husband, his hand of the waist of
the bronze girl, sliding it slowly over the slick skin of her belly toward her breast.
She brushed his hand, in the “somebody might be watching” kind of way. Her
bikini had a pattern of teddy bears on it.
When we got to shore, I thanked the blond boy. Then I threw up in the
sand. Mostly salt water. I retched for a long time after my stomach was empty.
There were wide bleeding welts on my arms and back, and one eye was swollen
shut. My right shoulder felt splintered inside.
Ian sat with me and covered his ears with his hands as my stomach heaved
again. He looked at my bleeding arms. “I did that, didn’t I?” I nodded. He cried,
and that hurt worse than the welts or my eye.
“Should I get my dad?” he asked.
I wheezed a shallow “Yes.”
Ian stumbled away from me and came back a few minutes later with a
towel. “Dad’s busy right now. He said he’ll be here in a minute. Are you okay?
Are you going to throw up again?”
“I don’t think so.” The taste of bitter bile on my teeth and gums.
“Good.” He plopped into the sand and took my hand. We huddled
together and I wrapped the beach towel around us, held Ian close, our cool skin
touching, warming. We sat, silent, watching the waves tumble onto the sand.
Three months later, I divorced Ian’s father. I wasn’t allowed to see Ian any
more. I came home.
Ian is a man now. Last year, he came to visit me, all the way from
California. He is tall, and a handsome, and very smart. We went for long walks
and sang all the old songs we could remember: Cats, the Roches, Songs from
Liquid Days. We talked about when we lived together, about Disneyland, and
Magic Mountain and shopping at the Galleria. We talked about what he would do
when he finished college, his career as a photographer, his desire to move to
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London. He told me about a girl he had fallen in love with, how she had broken
his heart. He said nothing of his father. I didn’t ask.
The day before he went back to California, Ian took my biggest yellow
towel, rolled his bathing suit and a pair of goggles inside it, and drove me to the
public swimming pool near my house. I watched him doing lengths from a seat in
the gallery. He is a powerful swimmer now with a broad back, strong limbs, and a
well-tuned front crawl. He raced in high school. “Like you did,” he smiled, “but
probably a lot faster.”
I asked him that night, after dinner, if he ever swam in the water off the
He swirled his fingertip in a drizzle of cheese sauce that edged his plate.
“Only when I have to,” he replied, licking his finger clean. “I don’t like the ocean
much. But if I ever have kids, I’ll make sure they know about the currents.”
After breakfast the next morning, Ian flew to California. I drove back to the
The water is different now.
“Government legislation and chlorine restrictions,” the lifeguard said,
slapping a grey mop onto the white deck. “The public pools have all been
retrofitted for salt water.” He swabbed limply. “Just as sterile, and better for the
The salt muddied the blue-green water, made it less clear. The lines on the
bottom were blurry, even with goggles. But salt in the water makes a swimmer
buoyant. I floated easily.
I swam a few slow miles. Moving like a kayak. Felt the simple pull of each
arm, the smooth thrust forward, my head slicing the water like a prow, my spine,
compressed by gravity, elongating. I watched the dark mass of my own shadow
on the pool bottom follow me from end to end. I swam and swam until the
nagging hunger returned; then I let it sit there, familiar.
A lukewarm shower in a cold locker room. I carefully dried myself with a
clean towel, fresh from the dryer. I drenched my salt-parched skin with lotion,
sweet-scented with orange and ylang1 to protect it from the harsh, dry cold of
I can still swim quite a ways.
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